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Garr Keith Hardin

Other Kentucky Exonerations
At about 7:30 p.m. on April 1, 1992, 19-year-old Rhonda Sue Warford returned home from a nearby grocery store parking lot – where she often hung out with friends –in Louisville, Kentucky. She told her mother that as she was leaving the parking lot, a strange man harassed her and said he wanted to marry her. Shortly after midnight, Rhonda left—her family assumed she was going back to the parking lot to meet up with friends again. She never returned.

Her body was found three days later in a field in Meade County, about 50 miles from her home. She had been stabbed many times after what appeared to be a close-range struggle based on defensive wounds on her hands. She died from a knife wound at the base of her skull that severed her brain stem. Three hairs were recovered from Warford’s right hand, and hairs were also found on her red sweatpants.

Because Warford was last seen in Louisville, the investigation was handled by Louisville police as well as the Meade County Sheriff’s Office. Warford’s mother said she believed her daughter and some friends were involved in Satanism. Police then focused on 22-year-old Garr Keith Hardin, who had been dating Warford for about five months, and Hardin’s close friend, 21-year-old Jeffrey Clark, who had previously socialized with Warford’s sister in 1991.

Hardin and Clark told police they spent the night drinking beer and looking for one of Clark’s pet snakes that had gone missing. Clark denied owning a knife, and said the last time he saw Warford was in December 1991. Hardin admitted that he owned a knife, but said he last saw Warford on March 29, 1992—three days before she was last seen—when he spent the night at her home.

A crime laboratory analyst reported that one of the hairs found on Warford’s sweatpants was similar to Hardin’s hair. Warford’s mother told police that the sweatpants were hers, and that she had just laundered them before lending them to her daughter. Police believed that the discovery of a hair similar to Hardin’s meant he had lied about not seeing her after March 29. Police also found one of Warford’s fingerprints on Clark’s car.

Louisville detective Mark Handy was assigned to head the investigation. Handy had a reputation for solving difficult cases, often by obtaining confessions. After police recovered knives and various occult-related items in Clark’s and Hardin’s homes, Hardin and Clark were questioned about their involvement in satanic worship. Detective Handy ultimately reported that Hardin said that he no longer wanted to sacrifice animals, but wanted to sacrifice a human. Handy reported that police had recovered a broken glass chalice and a bloodstained handkerchief from Hardin’s home, and that Hardin admitted that the handkerchief was stained with animal blood from a sacrifice.

On May 5, 1992, Hardin and Clark were arrested and charged with first-degree murder. They went to trial in Meade County Circuit Court in February 1995. By that time, their defense attorneys had learned that a woman had testified under oath before a Meade County grand jury that a man named James Whitely had admitted that he picked up Warford and drove her to Meade County where he killed her after they got into an argument. Police, however, never pursued that lead.

Clark’s ex-girlfriend, Amy Remsberg, testified for the prosecution. Remsberg, who had previously been prosecuted for sexually abusing her child after Clark reported her to authorities, told the jury that Clark was once involved with satanic worship. She further said that he owned numerous knives and guns, and that he had an inverted cross tattooed on his shoulder.

Remsberg testified that Clark told her that he would like to try killing a person because it would be a challenge to see if he could get away with it. She said that he had explained how a person could be killed by a stab wound to the base of the skull—which was where Warford’s fatal wound was located. Remsberg also testified that Clark took her to an area where he claimed a number of animal sacrifices had been made.

Another witness, Hope Jaggers, testified that she was Warford's best friend in the year before she died. Jaggers told the jury that she once heard Warford tell Hardin that Warford was pregnant, and that Hardin responded by saying that “if you are pregnant, I will kill you and that [expletive] baby.”

Jaggers also testified that she once saw Warford cut her fingertips with a razor and rub the blood on Hardin. However, when asked whether either Clark or Hardin was involved with Satanism, Jaggers said she did not know. During cross-examination, Jaggers admitted that she and Warford had met a man at the parking lot named “James” and that they had partied with him.

Shawn Lee Mattingly, a friend of Clark, testified that Clark almost always carried a knife with him, and that Clark called one of his knives a “sacrificial knife.” Mattingly also said that Clark had admitted to sacrificing an animal in front of a church.

Detective Handy testified that Hardin admitted that he had sacrificed animals and that he wanted “to do a human.” Handy also told the jury that Hardin said that the bloodstained handkerchief had been used to clean up after an animal sacrifice.

Clifford Capps, who was in the Meade County Jail after Hardin and Clark were arrested, testified that Clark admitted to him that he had killed Warford. Capps, who said he was not provided any benefits for his testimony, said that Clark made the admission twice—once in a joking manner and later in a serious fashion.

A crime lab analyst testified that Warford’s fingerprint had been found on Clark’s car. Although the prosecution attempted to suggest that the fingerprint was fresh, the analyst admitted there was no way to determine when a fingerprint was left.

Robert Thurman, a forensic analyst at the Kentucky State Police crime laboratory, conducted the hair analysis. He testified that he examined two grey hairs found in Warford’s hand, and concluded that the hair did not come from Warford, Hardin, or Clark.

He did conclude, however, that one hair found on Warford’s sweatpants was similar to Hardin’s hair. Although it was improper for hair analysts to testify that any two hairs “match,” Thurman repeatedly used the term when questioned by the prosecution. He told the jury that “in order for us to call a match, the (two hairs) have to match in characteristics” and that when a side-by-side comparison is made, “they must match that way also.”

The prosecutor asked Thurman, “If you’re looking at two hairs in a microscope, and let’s say you get what I would call a match. Is that the word you use—match? Or how do you grade these hairs?”

Thurman replied, “If something looks like it’s a match, we say it’s similar in color and microscopic characteristics.”

“So, in other words,” the prosecutor said, “If you’re looking at two hairs under a microscope and if they match up in these 15 characteristics that you’re talking about, you use the word similar in characteristics?”

“That’s correct,” Thurman replied.

Hardin and Clark both testified and denied involvement in the crime. They denied admitting to anyone that they committed the crime, and both denied sacrificing animals. Hardin said that the blood on the handkerchief was his, not an animal’s. He said it got there when he cleaned himself up after he dropped the glass chalice and cut himself while picking up the pieces of broken glass.

Two witnesses—Warford’s sister and one of Clark’s cousins—said that they had never seen Clark or Hardin involved in any satanic acts, although Warford’s sister said that she believed that Hardin actually was involved in satanic worship.

In closing argument, the prosecution repeatedly argued that the hair on the newly laundered sweatpants that was “just like” Hardin’s hair was proof that he had lied about not seeing Warford after March 29, 1992. The prosecutor told the jury that Hardin used the chalice to drink the blood of animals he sacrificed.

On March 7, 1995, the jury convicted Hardin and Clark of first-degree murder. Prior to sentencing, the defense discovered a letter that Capps had written to another inmate before trial urging the inmate to similarly claim that Clark had confessed to the murders. The defense claimed the prosecution had failed to disclose the letter and moved for a new trial. The court denied the motion and sentenced Clark and Hardin to life in prison. Their convictions were upheld on appeal.

In 2009, the Innocence Project in New York and the Kentucky Innocence Project sought DNA testing of the evidence in the case. The request was denied, but in 2013, the Kentucky Supreme Court ordered that the physical evidence be released for DNA testing. In 2014, Mitotyping Technologies in Pennsylvania tested the hair and determined that it did not belong to Hardin, Clark, or Warford. In addition, tests performed on the handkerchief confirmed that the blood was Hardin’s—as he had testified at trial.

In February 2015, lawyers for Hardin and Clark filed a motion for a new trial based on the DNA test results excluding them as the source of the hair that was used to convict them 20 years earlier.

The lawyers also presented evidence that in another case, Detective Handy had falsely claimed that a defendant made incriminating statements similar to those that Handy claimed Hardin had made. That defendant, Edwin Chandler, had been convicted of manslaughter in 1993, and was exonerated in 2009. Handy had given the false testimony in Chandler’s trial just weeks before testifying in the trial of Hardin and Clark.

Moreover, the defense presented evidence that in a 1992 murder investigation, Handy erased a witness’s tape-recorded statement and recorded over it. However, when he testified about the statement in February 1995—the same month Hardin and Clark’s trial began – Handy falsely denied tampering with the interview.

On July 14, 2016, Meade County Circuit Court Judge Bruce Butler granted the defense motion and vacated Hardin’s and Clark’s convictions. The judge noted that the only physical evidence used to link Hardin and Clark to the crime had excluded them. Moreover, a police investigation into Handy’s false testimony had concluded that Handy should be criminally prosecuted.

The judge said that Hardin and Clark were convicted based, “in part, on suppositions that we now know to be fundamentally false and material.”

The judge acknowledged that in 2015, Hardin had admitted involvement in the crime during unsworn testimony at a hearing on his application for parole. The judge found that the statements had no bearing on his decision to grant a new trial. “(T)he court finds that there is reason for candidates for parole to believe that failing to admit culpability or otherwise take responsibility for the crime(s) for which they are imprisoned, will adversely affect the likelihood of obtaining parole,” Judge Butler said. The judge said the admissions had “no legal relevance” to the motion for a new trial and he attached “little weight to this evidence.”

In August 2016, Hardin and Clark were released on $5,000 bail each. While the prosecution was appealing the ruling granting a new trial, a grand jury was convened and re-indicted Hardin and Clark in September 2016. Hardin was accused of perjury and both were charged with kidnapping Warford. In March 2017, additional charges of perjury were filed against both men.

The perjury charges were largely based on Hardin’s admission before the parole board, and for lying under oath during the evidentiary hearing held after the DNA testing was completed. The kidnapping charges alleged that Hardin and Clark had abducted Warford, and lied to her about where they were taking her.

In January 2018, Judge Butler dismissed those charges, calling them “vindictive.” The charges, he found, were brought solely to increase the punishment that Hardin and Clark faced, to punish them for “exercising their legal rights,” and in retaliation for winning a new trial.

On February 8, 2018, the prosecution moved to dismiss the remaining murder charges, citing the discredited physical evidence and the evidence relating to Detective Handy. “What this honorable court and the parties now know is that Det. Handy has been investigated for falsifying at least one other confession,” the motion said.

On February 26, 2018, Judge Butler granted the prosecution motion and dismissed the charges. Two days later, Handy, who had subsequently become a detective with the Jefferson County, Kentucky sheriff's office, retired.

In 2017, Hardin and Clark filed a federal lawsuit seeking damages from Meade County and the city of Louisville, including Detective Handy. That lawsuit was stayed pending the resolution of the criminal case.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 3/1/2018
Last Updated: 3/3/2018
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1992
Age at the date of crime:22
Contributing Factors:False Confession, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*